Firecracker Label

About this object

History of use

Invented in China around the 12th century or earlier, firecrackers have been widely used in China to serve a variety of religious and secular purposes. In both the past and present, firecrackers are used to ward off evil spirits, to honour spirits and deities, and to mark special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, funerals, shop openings, or festivals. Firecrackers are by far in greatest demand during the annual Lunar New Year, when they are ignited to purify a space and to blast away negative energies and demons. Firecrackers are also used in “fengshui” geomantic practices, as ritual objects to be hung in the home to stimulate new beginnings, prosperity, and the protection of the household. A large number of gold firecracker labels were produced from approximately 1850-1910, in the Guangdong region of southern China, to decorate the wooden crates that they were shipped in. Since many of these were produced in Foshan (Fatshan), a city noted for its manufacture of handmade ritual goods, collectors often refer to them as “Fat Shan” labels. The characteristic "gold" effect is produced from bronze or copper sheets and gold leaf, and is recognized as a speciality of Foshan. They range in size from smaller four-inch squares to larger circular labels with a twenty-four inch diameter. The gold labels are colourfully painted with auspicious themes, including depictions of deities, legends and myths, historical narratives, and scenes of everyday life. The images enhance the fireworks’ role in dispelling evil while attracting virtue and prosperity. These gold labels were widely sold in south-central and south-west China, and south-east Asia. Local manufacturers and merchants would order bulk firecrackers, pack them into wooden crates, and decorate the crates with these labels to entice potential distributors and consumers. Aside from their use as firecracker labels, many people in south China used the labels to decorate their rooms and utensils. Few labels survived to today because of their fragility and the small value placed on them at the time. After 1910, these painstaking production techniques were gradually replaced by lithography machines, which allowed artisans to print full colour labels on rice paper.

Iconographic meaning

The frontally seated figure in the center is the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion Guanyin, the Chinese incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the great bodhisattva of compassion from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition of India. She is one of the most beloved deities in China who is also associated with fertility and the protection of children. She is seated on a lotus throne, a Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment. On the right side, there is a blue vase with a willow twig that holds the sacred nectar of life, compassion, and wisdom. Guanyin is known for using the twig to sprinkle this nectar onto humans to decrease their suffering. The flexible willow, which bears medicinal properties, also indicates the virtuous ability to bend without breaking. On the left side, there is a white bird with vividly coloured wings that is the dove of fecundity. It carries a Buddhist rosary in its beak and hovers over a lotus seedpod, a sign of fertility and abundance. Many young women make offerings to Guanyin when they want to conceive a baby or to heal a sick child. The depiction of Guanyin on a firecracker label attracts these blessings for the Lunar New Year.

Specific techniques

Gold labels were handmade in workshops using assembly line techniques. Artisans first cut out the labels' overall shape from bronze or copper foil. Next, they apply a thin rice paper backing to strengthen the foil. To texturize the foil, the artisans used pointed tools to emboss designs. These sheets were pinned to a wall or table so that several painters could work on them. The backgrounds would be painted first, followed by the details in the foreground using smaller brushes. During the last application, even finer brushes were used for the facial features and calligraphy. Some shiny areas of the original bronze or copper foil were left exposed. It was also common to add a layer of gold leaf designs, pressed out of hand-carved wooden blocks, to further accentuate the design.

Physical description

Square label on rice paper backing and gold leaf background. A seated human figure is depicted wearing a white robe trimmed in red and green. The figure is holding an object in one hand and the other hand is slightly raised. In the top left corner is a white bird with vividly coloured wings. It is possibly carrying a colourful beaded necklace in its beak. On one side of the figure is a flower and on the other side is a vase holding a stem with leaves. On the bottom there is a rectangular object with a large flower painted in the center and flowers in each corner at the lower edge. Outlined in a blue key pattern. On the back is a stamp reading "Made in China" and Chinese characters.